What a 15 year old girl taught me about tech.

Last year I decided to work with so called ‘young people’. At 36, I realised most of my peers and collaborators were in their late twenties or my age and although many friends were much much older, not many of them were much much younger. So I went to work, taking on 20 something year old Katya as an intern and mentored 19 year old Jolane for a few months. Then last December, my friend who is a teacher at the secondary in front of my house asked me if I knew anyone who could offer a work placement for a talented 15 year old named Lian. She was simultaneously much younger than anyone I had interacted and much older than my nieces. What’s more, I can still remember being 15. So I offered to take her on for a week but instead of getting her to help me with the Good Night Lamp, I thought I’d help her to project herself in the future.

I organised a week of morning study periods, introducing her to graphic design principles, 3D drawing through Tinkercad, presentation skills and blogging. In the afternoons we went to visit friends of mine who works across technology and creativity: Alice Bartlett,Claire Selby, Ling Tan, Becky Stewart, Avril O’Neal and Nat Buckley. This turned out to be really exhausting for her, but she seemed to enjoy herself. By the end of the week she was confident enough to ask questions we hadn’t rehearsed and was taking notes on her own without my prompting. But really I learnt a lot more from this experience than I think she might imagine.

Human experience trumps theory
What made the time we spent with our hosts fantastic was to hear about what led them to where they are now. They spoke about learning, sometimes by accident, about computing. Sometimes they talked about what made them give it up for a while before returning to it later on. They talked about their parents, their teachers, their partners, their experiences travelling, their university course, their first jobs. All this gave me, as their friend, such an amazing insight into their work experience I hadn’t gotten from being a peer. It also put some real humanity into ‘tech’ as a field of practice. Coding wasn’t simply an academic choice, it was one of many these professionals could and sometimes did develop if they wanted to but it wasn’t always necessary.

ICT, IT, Computing, Coding.
A point I had to make to my young friend during our week together is the difference between ICT and well everything else. It’s not really self-evident that these different terms relate to different aspects of the ‘technology’ space and are not interchangeable. This is a real problem as language is culture and if in academia you aren’t using the same words industry is, then young people think you’re talking about something completely different. And of course they might be put off on that basis.

Seeing is believing
We had a lot of fun going *to* our hosts and seeing their environments. Some worked in large businesses with security guards at the door, others had making facilities and co-working spaces, others had small studio spaces in Shoreditch. That variety really puts a face on what the work is like. What it’s like to live a life working in ‘tech’ and creativity. This is very hard to bring to the classroom environment. We also went to see the new Robots exhibition at the Science Museum which brings to life robotics research. She hadn’t been to the museum since she was little. Bringing 15 year olds to technical museums is as valid as bringing smaller kids and perhaps even the parents need to be reminded of this. Seeing is believing.

Having a voice
Finally to hear a professional talking about their work, their career their path is very empowering. It’s a personal story told in an intimate context of their work. It’s powerful and it’s profound. At least it was for me. It made me realise how strong we are and I could remember how guarded I was when I was younger. It made me very proud to know all these people, to call some of them friends even. I hope that meeting them opened up the desire in Lian to have a voice to, to learn to speak and share in such a powerful way. The tech sector needs it so.

All things, connected and considered.

(Talk given at a Telenor event in Oslo on January 10th 2017.)

I’ve just come back from CES in Las Vegas and I can tell you, what can be connected is definitely on its way to being connected.

Cities, homes, cars and much more. But the devil is in the details so I’ll be the devil’s advocate.

Who is paying?

Smart cities is an area where connecting everything sounds like a great idea. Hello Lamp Post is a great, playful example of what we should be able to expect from our city’s infrastructure. The problem is of course that there is almost no such thing as ‘public goods’. The bins are made by a private company (Big Belly  for eg.) and installed by another private company (Veolia). Your water is distributed by a private company, so is your energy. Connecting these various elements to make a citizen’s life easier isn’t actually easy. Cars are very disruptive to a city’s pollution levels but collecting parking fines is an important source of finance for cities. And if a city isn’t collecting much taxes it will avoid spending it on investments where the ROI isn’t important enough. Many connected services also need capital investments that cities can’t afford. To offer smart parking you’d need to strap a camera on every street light or more dramatically dig out the tarmac to put sensors in the ground. Sounds great but if this isn’t financed artificially (EU-funding or other) many cities would prefer pouring their money in waste management, policing and emergency services as they are where financial planning is more predictable. Moving away from the status quo comes at a price for the cities that would benefit the most from connected services simply because the capital investment, to make a real difference, is too large.

Who is buying?

CES was full of connected pet trackers, fridges, ovens and other novel applications of connectivity. There is often a lag between the ability to technically execute a new product offering and when consumers buy into them. The microwave for eg. was patented in 1945  but it wasn’t until the 80s that it became a household item in 90% of American homes. The first mobile phone was developed in 1973 but until the 2000s most people didn’t own one for leisure. An early instance of a connected fridge delivery service was meant to be developed in 2001 by Tesco the british retail giant and Glue, a swedish company has just received funding to do the same last year. But it only works with Scandinavian locks. That’s the type of problems you get when you try to scale and that’s how long ideas can take to be developed and adopted. It’s also rare that entirely new categories are created.

Global vs local scales of development

The world isn’t flat. Even McDonalds makes its product differently for everyone. Nest worked in the US because there you can do whatever you want to your electric system. In the UK however, it’s illegal to play around with your electric setup so you need an approved installer. The scalability of connected solutions always sounds nice on paper but the reality of hardware is different. People’s habits and behaviours are also different around products. People honk in the west to indicate their frustrations but in India, you honk to let someone know you’re behind them. On some American roads speeding is expected and flashing your lights indicates to others there is a police car nearby. Imagine a smart car in these contexts, the same sensors would create a very different map of cities and driving behaviours if you are locally aware. They would not make any sense if you are looking at the data through a machine’s view only.

Connected? Really?

Seamless connectivity is a dream we hold on to for the development of many products. But the reality is our cities, countrysides, rural areas and even our homes make for very different connectivity environments. Recognising that multiple modes of communication are needed at any point is hard, it’s expensive. The chipset prices vary widely so product designers tend to pick one over others and pay the price at some stage. The idea of seamless connectivity is dangerous because it fouls consumers into thinking they should be getting it from the get go. We’re not that lucky and the quicker we can manage expectations or offer alternatives the better. It’s expensive as it means handling returns but it’s the right thing to do.

Data, whose data?

Speaking of the right thing to do, well the internet of things presents us with many opportunities to inform consumers about their data and what rights they have over it. So why don’t we? Most consumers have absolutely no idea what happens to the data they create when using a product. No idea as to when that data is being taken and where it ends up, or even what it is. This will present the industry with ethical and corporate social responsibility problems. I’ve proposed a labelling system which is far from perfect but whoever decides to implement this first will lead the industry in being transparent about the invisible strands between a consumer and the company they are invisible linked to.

Damn pesky people

At the end of the day there is also the dirty secret of connectivity which is that you know precisely when and where someone has stopped using your service or how ineffective it may be. And instead of admitting it, most companies stay mute. Wearables are a perfect example, as they are linked to an unhealthy habit of thinking, every January usually, that you’ll lose weight this year. Most people stop using them within a short period of time and it has very little effect in changing our habits it turns out. Instead of building return/reuse services or a deeper more tailored service, wearable companies take whatever data they can get and move on to the next consumer. What a lost opportunity to change people’s lives for the best.

Common good(s)

Finally if there is an aspect of society which connectivity and telcos like Telenor can help build and invest in well it’s to build solutions to problems no-one wants to address, the problems for which markets are terribly ill-equipped. The elderly care market, personal security devices, smart flood warning systems and others are niche applications that can change people’s lives. The ability to execute small pilot projects to prove to other partners the effectiveness of a solution is key. Only companies like Telenor have the capital to invest in these kinds of solutions, solutions where a little bit of connectivity will go a long way.

The end of design

I just came back from CES (thanks to Here for flying me over to see their work, I’ll write about that soon too) and wanted to write down some thoughts I’ve been having over the past few months which crystallised during this trip. I’ll be giving a talk tomorrow in Oslo at an event organised by Telenor which will touch some of what I’ll write about here too.

I’ve been thinking about product design. Technically I studied industrial design, graduated from a B.A.(Sc) Sp. in 2004. We were never introduced to programming, computer science principles, electronics design or prototyping and the internet was an image search tool for presentations. That was 2004 but I have met people who still constrain their product design career that way. The course I studied has basically not changed while over the past 12 years, product design has been taken away from ‘designers’ to become an extension of computing and the latest technology.

A product has become a physical manifestation of computing capability, with little concern given to the ‘user’ because it is now so cheap to produce something physically, that whether someone finds a product ‘useful’ or not hardly matters. It’s about what the ‘user’ can contribute to the computing power and the technology. The function is almost accidental. A physical product is no longer a tool to solve an actual problem. The design of the product is now simply a process of execution of a technological capability, not the core value. The physical product, just an accidental interface to a land of data to be mined. It is a physical access point to people’s behaviours, language skills and habits in their home, cars and at work.

A bit like Narcissus, looking into the mirror, we want our technical capabilities to mirror us. We are making the mirror.

Robots and assistants at CES were a great examples of design by technologists, of that mirror made physical. I worked for over 2 years for an EU-funded  social robotics project and the computing technology has hardly improved (mostly relying on great copywriters) but the access to design means that simple, clunky technology can be made to look final and believable enough for consumers. Some of the ‘robot companions’ you can find in the CES Robotics Marketplace included Abilix, Koova, Unibot, Furo-i Home, Loobot (don’t ask), Alpha 2, Laundroid (no product pics), Nannybot and i-RobiQ. All a little hopeless, there was also Kuri a gender-confused (copy uses both he and she but not it) home robot launched by Mayfield Robotics. The CTO’s interviewed talks about the technical ability to make robots cost effective, not the fact that there was a great need for them. And that’s the problem in a nutshell.

The expression ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’ will become ‘now that we did, why did we again?’ as user and need-driven design has completely disappeared in the developed world.

Our biggest problems  have nothing to do with connectivity and technology but we’re enjoying the engineering-led distraction.

Environmental responsibility, ridiculous packaging, data ownership are all areas that people have been thinking and writing about for over 70 years and we have done, as designers, almost nothing about them. At least not enough to fill the halls of CES.

So design, as it was once conceived, is no longer the glue between technical capabilities and user needs. It is simply the physicalisation tool of technologists with no real understanding or appetite for real needs as there are better, advertising led ways of making money. Hardware doesn’t make you money anymore.

How did we get here? Well the design industry just went to sleep. It’s star system (Stark, Rashid, Béhar, Mooi, etc) is decades old and young talent distracted by it.

For a product designer to want to learn about technology, he/she would not be going to a traditional design course but then he’d lose out on some of the technical essentials of design. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

There is not yet a space for graduate design education that caters to this new world, that fights back. A world that teaches people that to build great products, a design education isn’t enough, you need financing, marketing, engineering and manufacturing partners. You, actually, need to be a design entrepreneur in order to control the user-need driven vision you are taught in design education.  And that’s hard to tell someone who, at 18 or 19,  just knows that they like to draw.

I’d like to try to build such a design program longer term. If you’d like to talk about that drop me a line at alex at designswarm dot com. Let’s keep calm, but let’s not carry on. There is much work to do.

 

Happy New Year!

So you want an internet of things strategy?

I’ve been giving talks and having lots of meetings with executives across a number of different industries who are interested in the internet of things and aren’t quite sure what to do. Based on the past ten years of my work around this topic, here are some high-level recommendations.

Assumptions: chances are you have a research department or the product arm of your business is changing because your industry is changing. Latching on to the internet of things, AR/VR, cloud and digital is likely to help you solve some problems but not all. Chances are you need a change of culture and a change of senior management. This article is specifically for your business if you’ve decided to commit to #iot as a topic area and are ready to commit to it for a minimum of 3 years.

  1. Think about legacy

Staff turn-around in technical teams can be high (especially if they’re young) and chances are you’ll be recruiting web developers, creative technologists, industrial designers and electronics engineer as part of a good team that can prototype new connected product ideas for your business. These teams, when they work well are self-sufficient and therefore a culture of quick iterative prototypes is developed. This culture clashes with the need for comprehensive documentation of each idea. Successful high resolution prototypes are one thing but the interesting little prototypes that lead you there are just as important. Making sure code, circuitboard diagrams, BoMs and demo videos are available is important to make sure someone in Marketing or the next technical lead can understand a development process.

  1. Know your history and your landscape

You are joining a rich ecology of startups, government programs, tools and standards groups. You’re not doing this on your own so you better get used to collaborating with others that may have competing interests but are much smaller than you and have developed better tools. It takes a particular type of humility but what you’ll get out of it will stand out from what’s being done by your industry. The point of the internet of things is the breakdown of industry silos. The trick here is to grow a circle of ‘care’ so work with people in a way that opens up your abilities and your contacts so they can do the same. That’s why it’s the internet of things and not the intranet of things. People expect APIs for your services and the open mind to go with it.

  1. Help users get literate

In light of the recent splat of press about the internet of things and security we have to work as an industry to give people the tools to know what they should do. We struggle to do this online already and when things are added to the mix of course it complexifies things a lot, but the opportunity here is for a decent amount of time spent with end-users, not just ‘personas’ who are so loved by some design thinkers. There’s nothing like giving people something to live with for a while (be it either at home or at work) to get great feedback and highlight opportunities. It’s not with post-its, it’s not with ideas, it’s with functional high resolution prototypes that you’ll have to invest in fabrication. This means spending months (a long-term trial of the average social robot is 3 months) with customers finding out how your product fits. Only then will you have something that can change people’s lives (at work or at home!) and only then can you help them understand the risks best.

  1. Be patient

Don’t assume you’ll be able to create value for your organisation quickly, getting teams to work together and have good ideas they can prototype and iterate (takes ages to order parts) and then getting something that’s unique enough to showcase once a year at CES means that to get noticed and the right partners on board long term you’ll have to do this for some years. You’ll learn a lot and try to trust your team to work slowly but steadily. It’s difficult when you’re probably tied to whatever you can do within a financial quarter but if you want to change your business, that’s the price to pay. Try not to change innovation managers too often that’s really disruptive to the process and technical teams and jeopardises progress. Also give them a good budget, they have to buy machinery and parts! :)

Good luck!

 

Five minutes on smart cities

Introduction given at ESOF16 on July 25th in Manchester.

I’ve been working with Nominet R&D for the past year looking at the progress of over 140 global smart city projects and I wanted to take advantage of my five minutes here to talk talk about what I see are the future challenges of smart cities in a rapidly degrading economic and political global landscape.

Most smart city projects have usually taken a technology-first approach and relied heavily on government and EU funding. After a panel debate I organised last week on Brexit at the meetup, it’s safe to assume we will lose large parts of that funding as EU money disappears and the UK government aims to patch that up with existing funds.

With this, we, strangely, may return to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ message: we will have to get a lot of things done ourselves and own up, as citizens to not only our rights, but our responsibilities in building a future society which is becoming technologically more literate (thanks to Facebook, Pokemon Go and other accessible, comprehensive platforms) but cash-poor. We, I think, owe it to help groups of people find their voice in a world of global market economics.

I’ve been working on a project called Made Near You to help food producers across the UK build a minimal viable digital presence, make themselves findable by tourists and newcomers who move to the country from big cities when they have kids.

It’s not that it’s addressing a complex city problem, but it may help small businesses around the country to participate in these data-laden economies they perhaps haven’t connected to previously.

I’m also interested in championing bottom-up projects such as the Air Quality Egg, the Smart Citizen kit, Buffalo Grid and the Oxford Flood Network. Projects which have very small teams who are under-funded because they address complex problems associated with climate change. But we will not be able to rely on our national and local governments to do ‘the right thing’.

The answer for some, may lie in distancing themselves from the problems of local economies, that is the privilege of the few however.

For the rest of us will have to support these products ourselves. That will become the new normal, the new meaning of smart citizenship, whatever country we may be citizen of on paper.

Open letter to AIGA

Hello!

Sorry for reaching out unexpectedly, but I’d like to bring something to your attention. I am not a member of AIGA but a professional product and interaction designer and I have been working for over 10 years under designswarm.com as both my company’s URL, digital presence on social media of all sorts, talks internationally, works displayed in museums (MoMa, V&A) and galleries.
So it’s with great disappointment that I see your organisation didn’t bother to do a simple google search to check whether the use of designswarm (for your design swarm events)  would create a conflict with any other companies. The fact that I am a designer makes it doubly insulting. The fact that I reached out on social media to both the organisation’s main account and Seattle accounts with no response whatsoever is even worse.
In any case one would have thought a creative organisation such as yours would have at least reached out to ask, or you know, come up with something different.
I hope you understand my frustration and hope to hear from you soon on this matter. I can be reached at alex at designswarm dot com
Best,
Alex

Made Near You: making local food businesses shareable & transparent

designswarm_madenearyou_map

So to conclude (rather dramatically) last week, here are some notes on what I ended up showcasing at the end of the Mozilla Open IOT Design Sprint in Anstruther, Scotland.

Made Near You (MaNY) is a service which allows food producers who want to encourage local communities and tourists to eat and buy local.

A form allows a food producer (farmer, chocolatier, condiment producer, they all count) would put in their details and link to their e-commerce shop if they have one.

designswarm_madeneayou_web

This would allow hotels to print out a map of local food businesses for visitors or local people to look up a post code and see what is around them.

designswarm_madenearyou_web2

This may lead down the line (this is a bit more of a stretch) to more visual and transparent conversations about the origins of food. Many packages already include where meat is being slaughtered but they are not obliged to share the city, so it ends up saying ‘UK’ which is hardly useful. A more visual map-based way of labelling makes people think about building facilities near them and create business opportunities everywhere.

designswarm_tenmilesaway_foodlabels

 

Finally this is obviously a service that is easy to internationalise and offer local versions for while keeping translation front of mind. It’s usually when we travel abroad and use our money to help other people’s economies that we are most keen to buy locally. We are, regardless of the brexit vote, one world.

Hopefully an idea is interesting enough to move forward, and if you’re interested in a conversation, do get in touch at alex at designswarm dot com

 

designswarm_10milesaway_local

 

 

Day 3 of Mozilla OpenIOT DesignSprint

mapsdataexport-2016-06-22Not a particularly productive day (I may be nursing a cold) today but lots of thinking about what we know, what we don’t know and what we choose to ignore.

It turns out for example that there isn’t any regulation on what distance is required for you to be able to use the term ‘local’on your packaging. Waitrose decided on 30 miles. In the US you can go up to 640km to call something ‘local’ or ‘regional’.

This also made me think about the distance itself. Where a cow is raised for example isn’t where it will be killed but will probably be where it will be butchered. When the farm gets the pieces back it isn’t even sure that it comes from the animals that were sent in. Often the labour is cheap and untrained so bits like the pigs cheeks don’t ever come back to the farmer even if they are highly desirable by cooks in local kitchens. The meat will then travel to the consumer. So is the food mile considering that whole trip? I’m not sure.

I also thought I’d map out the UK’s official slaughterhouses that deal with cows, pigs, horses and deer (ungulates). Not many around London obviously. But also not many period considering we’re feeding over 65M people.

I was also reminded of the BBC Radio 4 show on EL Shumacher an economics thinker and philosopher in the 70s. There’s a college in the UK that takes his philosophy into practice and there’s a lovely sounding sustainable food workshop next month. I wish I could attend.

I think for this Friday I’d like to think about what we’d do if we knew how far away things had to travel to get to us. Would we be surprised about it? Would we spend more / less? Would it make any difference?

This may take the shape of a little ‘low carbon market’.

Day 2 of Mozilla Open IOT Design Sprint: Farmnet

IMG_0161

I’m in Anstruther (a small fishing village in Fife, Scotland) this week taking part in the second Mozilla Open IOT Studio design sprint. The whole week is organised by Michelle Thorne, the studio director and Jon Rogers who lives in the area. We’re working from an old church adjacent to a graveyard and there’s 40 of us working on bringing the internet of things to a rural town.

I was offered to jump into a farming community brief and as I’ve had the pleasure of working with Wintec over the last years, this seemed like an obvious space to be.  We visited the estate of the 14th Baronet of Anstruther who manages lots of land, rents it out to farmers, has converted old farming buildings into hipster-friendly work spaces and is going organic. Not quite your average farmer but it was nice to get close to the action.

IMG_0143

One of the first things he told us yesterday morning when we interviewed him was that Tesco and others fake farm names for their brand own labels.

Despite the British sounding names, the “farms” do not exist and the produce is often sourced from abroad.

I’d imagine that this is because there is no such thing as a public farm registry. If you apply to become a farm, it’s information that stays with the government but not something you’d put on a label. Provenance is important in helping consumers make decisions about the food they eat. It’s not just an administrative imperative, it’s a conversation between producers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and consumers. Especially when it can kill you if you have allergies. It makes me think that just like we need advocacy around labelling for #iot products, we certainly need it for British-farmed produce.

So I’m developing a very early idea I’m calling Farmnet, which is an open registry for farms which they can use on labelling of their products.

designswarm_farmnet_mince

I imagine this to be a space where you can check where that farm is based, if it’s organic or not, if it has an online shop should you want to buy directly from them and what it also sells (many farms have lots of different crops).

This was also after realising there are lots of different organisations around farming, but no publicly accessible database. Even doing a bit of digging around I found more local businesses by Googling my way around the web than one of the many official sites Farmafarma_map_anstruther

My map.

anstruther_mymap_zoomedin

The other reason to have a database is give people an excuse to add to it. Many local farm shops do have an online presence if you know their name already. For many that presence is minimal, the bigger the town, the more likely they are to have an online shop and a responsive website. For many they would rely on local trade and relationships that continue to support a highly seasonal business structure. I was told by

Food for everyone.

Anstruther has many care homes and retired people, making sure they can have access to great local food and not just shop/supermarket bought goods because they can no longer drive is pretty important to the life and health of the town and local economy. There may be a future argument for local food to be cheaper for local people, a kind of local subsidy to encourage farmers to start farmer’s markets very very locally.

Anyway, some thoughts on day 2. If you’d like to give me some feedback or want to talk about this, please drop me a line at alex at designswarm dot com.

On the potential

(Talk given on March 11th in India at the BusinessWorld IOT Expo.)

I’ve had a lot of friends join large organisations as employees. One of the reasons they cite is often ‘there’s so much potential’ because the brand / business is large, important or global. I always grin.

Since the world of business and technology started taking the internet of things seriously (the Google acquisition of Nest in Jan 2014) it’s very easy to get excited but also complacent about ‘the potential’. We think we can see the potential by extrapolating how we have worked in the past, a convenient future for ourselves.

We think the internet of things sounds like a good idea because in the world of business and technology, we know things (industrial assets, infrastructure, consumer goods) and we also know the internet (infrastructure & services). So we think that the internet of things sounds like a mashup of the two. Like all you have to do is stick the internet on ‘it’. Whatever ‘it’ might be. Indiscriminately and immediately. Bring the two worlds together seamlessly.

I think the reality is far more difficult, and the so-called ’potential’ very different than what we might initially imagine.

Just as a single employee has to reconcile eventually that whatever the potential of their specific role is, they are one of a great many moving pieces, that they may have competing interests to their team and that their team is controlled by budgets that they don’t have control over. So for the internet of things. Noone is an island in the internet of things. Noone has control of the whole equation and furthermore the dependancies are different than the ones we’re used to. Here are some things we will need to get used to when we think about the potential:

Working across industries, divisions and size.

I just co-curated the Bosch ConnectedExperience which took place this week. An event almost 8 months in the making, this was the opportunity for a smaller division of Bosch namely Bosch Software Innovations to bring people across their entire business to the internet of things table. I helped organise a conference track exposing attendees to the wide landscape of the internet of things and different business units offered free and confidential clinics to attendees no matter what their industry, product or idea. Then 4 business units (cars, power tools, sensors and manufacturing divisions) offered a first taste of their developer-facing tools to a group of attendees. No NDAs, open, sometimes even open source. I would have liked to see more business units get involved across the Bosch business, but it was a strong start. A team formed of a UK-based academic and independant software engineers from Switzerland and Germany who had never worked together and only met that day, within a half a day, figured out how to address a small screen on an industrial screwdriver, a component that Bosch buys from outside the business and didn’t have much information on. Suddenly this small screen became a platform for communication to workers as they perform their task. This is the perfect example of what I call ‘lateral work’. It is about a business having the humility to admit that the best ideas in a world of connected experiences may come from an ad-hoc group of people who don’t even work for them. This is hard, and requires an open and collaborative approach to innovation. It requires a business and its stakeholder to have the humility to seek relationships with a world-wide developer community that won’t want to interact with a large business in traditional ways. That’s the potential.

21st century citizenship and city management

When we talk about the potential of the internet of things, the word things often points the imagination towards consumer goods. Things we have in our homes. But the potential sometimes sits with things that are perhaps a little outside of our homes, things that may bring about the city services of the future. A radical change to public utility and what public good looks like. A new sense of citizenship. Bridges that let us know if there’s a flood coming,  an outdoor air quality sensor we might attach to our balcony, a connected geiger counter we might wear, the ability to charge and access the web from a box that has a solar panel, ordering a tractor on demand, these are all products proposed by startups around the world which challenge the way our city officials engage with us and technology contracts. The potential lies, for India perhaps, in being able to take advantage of its historical independant and entrepreneurial spirit to allow a new relationship with its citizens to grow, using new technologies to educate city stakeholders and locally manufacturing the hardware for eg. India can be a model for the world. That’s the potential.

Making the internet of things for everyone

I hate the word niche, it often implies “not middle class white 20 year old men living in California’. That leaves behind a lot of people. Niche can be great for the internet of things. Starting a small company that sells to thousands of customers is what the world is filled with, it’s called the high street and the markets of our cities. Wouldn’t it be terrific to imagine what the internet of things can do for those high street vendors? How many interesting products could be created because they help solve a hyper-local problem with cheap hardware and cheap-ish connectivity?

The Arduino and Raspberry Pi, 2 open source education platforms, have helped people make 1 to 10 of something, but making even just 500 a quarter of something is still very difficult in some parts of the world and incredibly costly. Many incbuators and accelerators immediately think of China when looking to manufacture products but the minimum orders are so high and the linguisitic barrier discourages many. This could clearly be a win for India if its industry is alined and ready to cater to hundreds of something being made for startups worldwide.

The hidden potential of open source

In September 2012 I helped organise the Open IOT Assembly in London. Attendees from all over the world came up with a series of principles which still now feel aspirational. It was called the Open Internet of Things Definition. I don’t know what the state of conversation around openess in India but we can’t talk about standards and interoperability without wondering if we’re not replicating old industrial conversations. Openess as a general principle can allow lots of interesting interactions between companies and their customers. Openess also implies taking responsability and being transparent about how complex systems are built and in an era where we’re not entirely sure where the meat we eat at the local mcdonalds comes from, well there’s a lot of work still to do. We also can’t shy away from wondering what happens to the hardware we deploy when it breaks down or sits there unused. I’m sure Fitbit know exactly how many of us have stopped exercising. Others are taking these principles of openness on around the world and the closed systems of sensor networks and infrastructure are bound to keep an eye on these new initiaties and look for success stories. That’s the potential again, the ability for someone more nimble to change the mind of someone who isn’t. And that, ultimately is exciting for everyone. Big or small. In India or in Indiana.